Chris Essig

Walkthroughs, tips and tricks from a data journalist in eastern Iowa

Resources for moving away from Google maps

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Note:
 This is cross-posted from Lee’s data journalism blog. Reporters at Lee newspapers can read my blog over there by clicking here.

For some time now, Google maps has been the go-to source for map-making journalists.

And for good reason. The maps load quickly, can be easily hooked up to other Google products like Fusion Tables and charts, are free (mostly) and feature an incredible API for developers.

But recently, many journalists have been moving away from Google Maps. Part of this was spurred by a recent announcement by Google that they would be charging for their map API (although they backtracked a bit after receiving flack from news organizations).

Others are just sick of seeing the same backdrops on every map featured on news websites. A little variety never hurt anybody.

Mostly because of the latter, I’ve started experimenting with products like Leaflet, Tilemill and Wax to make our interactive maps. Here’s a couple of examples:

1. Public hunting grounds in Iowa

2. Child abuse reports by county

If you are like me and trying to spice things up, here’s some resources that helped me that will hopefully help you as well:

Leaflet docs – Leaflet is very similar to Google Maps; it provides your map with a backdrop, highlights locations, gives you zoom controls, etc. But unlike Google Maps, Leaflet allows users to make their own backdrops and upload them online. Other users can use the backdrops on their own maps. Leaflet also allows map-makers to put points on the map similar to Google.

CloudMade Map Style Editor – Here’s a collection of user-generated Leaflet maps you can use with your next project. Be careful not to get sucked in for hours like I do.

AP: Bringing Maps to Fruition – If you are looking for a good example of Leaflet in action with source code and all, download this ZIP file provided by Michelle Minkoff, Interactive Producer for the Associated Press in Washington. She presented it at NICAR 2012 and inspired me to try it out.

TileMill – Not satisfied with any of the backdrops you’ve seen? Why not create your own? With TileMill, that is not only possible but easy (if you know basic CSS) and ridiculously addicting. You can also use TileMill, for instance, to color code counties using tiles, which are basically very small PNG image files. You can then use Google Maps as the backdrop (See below) for the map.

Chicago Tribune: Making maps (five part series) – It’s fair to say this is required reading for any journalist looking to make maps. This thorough read goes through the steps of preparing your data, putting it in a database, using the tile rendering program TileMill to make a great-looking county population map and deploy it with Google Maps. Warning: It’s best if you familiarize yourself with the command line and if you a Mac user, DOWNLOAD ALL THE DEPENDENCIES (you can) with HomeBrew. See “Requirements” on the second part of the tutorial for a list of dependencies.

Minn Post: How we built the same-day registration map – After you are done styling your map in the above tutorial, the Trib guys will show you how to deploy your tiles with a Python script. This is great but not how I have done it. Instead, I used this fantastic walkthrough from the Post’s Kevin Schaul to render the tiles, post them with Leaflet and make them interactive with Wax.

Geocoding with Google Spreadsheets – One downfall of TileMill is it doesn’t recognize addresses like Google Maps does. Use this site to find out the latitude and longitude of addresses. Warning: You can only do 99 addresses at a time. If you know of a better resource, I’d love to know about it.

Leaflet recipe: Hover events on features and polygons – I have not gone through this walk-through from Ben Walsh at the L.A. Times, but it looks like a solid way to incorporate hover events with your Leaflet maps.

NRGIS Library for Iowa – Journalists at other Iowa newspapers will be happy to know this website exists with plenty of shapefiles of area roads, lakes, interstates, parks, you name it. It’s what I used to style all the points on the hunting grounds map. And if you don’t live in Iowa, just ask around and you may hit the jackpot like I did!

Maki Icons – Tilemill also supports icons. Here’s a great list of sharp looking icons you can use with the program.

QGIS 1 and QGIS 2 – If you are looking to make static, interactive maps and don’t need a zoom function, check out the (free!) QGIS program. With it, you can import polygons (with shapefiles) or points on map (using CSVs) and style them. You can then export them as PNGs files and make them interactive. Check out this two-part tutorial for more information.

As always, feel free to e-mail me with questions or if you know of any great resources not listed: chris.essig@wcfcourier.com

Written by csessig

April 16, 2012 at 9:51 am

Posted in Courier, Data, Leaflet, Maps, TileMill, Wax

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